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On the road in "Sharemerica": art walking in downtown L.A.

Editor’s note: Local photographer Bryan McCormick recently left Las Vegas on an open-ended journey into the nation’s “sharing culture,” which he plans to document in words, pictures and a variety of other media. He's also delving deeply into the places he visits. These are the ongoing chronicles of his adventures. In this installment, Bryan delves into an art walk in Downtown Los Angeles — which may be of interest to those of us familiar with First Friday in downtown Las Vegas.

 

I spent the month of February in downtown L.A. This was one neighborhood in the city I knew nothing about — when I had lived here last, it had pretty much been written off, with the exception of Chinatown and Little Tokyo. I looked forward to digging in, given its transformation over the last 10 years or so.

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Los Angeles encompasses a sprawl of neighborhoods and communities with a thriving art scene, at least as far as turnout and public participation is concerned. There are more than a dozen art walks by my last count, and probably more that I haven’t learned about yet.

The Downtown L.A. Art Walk takes place on second Thursdays every month. It might seem an odd day, but it was chosen specifically as a day on which there would be minimal holiday conflict. The footprint encompasses a significant chunk of DTLA’s Historic Core neighborhood — but, perhaps oddly, nothing in the Arts District. It turned out that the walk’s launch area was a stone’s throw from the Airbnb I was in.

Most of the participating galleries are clustered along Hill, Broadway, Spring, Main, and South Los Angeles, with a scattering both east and west. It is impressive in breadth, with more than 35 galleries on the list when I took the walk in February. There was a large public turnout, as well. So much so that people in the building that I was staying in complained bitterly about “Art Walk Night” because it made dog walking and partying such a chore. This seemed promising and familiar based on my  experience in Downtown Las Vegas

I was impressed, though in most cases the level of work wasn’t necessarily a lot different from what we might see in Vegas on a really good First Friday. What made it different was something Vegas can’t necessarily help, which is large scale and variety. What I was really impressed by was the high level of public engagement. It was not a street party with artworks as a second player. People were really looking at the work and talking about it together.

After covering half the walk, I was curious. How had this “oh God, not another art walk" I’d reluctantly gone to turned out to be so good? Back at the Art Walk Lounge on Spring I met Qathryn Brehm, the executive director. We talked about the evolution of the walk and we discussed the differences between Las Vegas and DTLA. Qathryn was a pioneer in the L.A. Arts District, having lived and worked there since 1979.

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She told me that the Art Walk started with just three or four galleries, taking quite a bit of time to reach the first 1,000 attendees. From there, attendance exploded, reaching upward of 35,000. But Qathryn said this was a real problem. Perhaps familiar to Las Vegans are the issues created by cramming that many people into a relatively small footprint, which then focused on Spring and Main, between Second and Ninth. It became known for underage drinking, for being a party scene. This is where Qathryn entered as director. The solution, she noted, was for education broadly and to bring the galleries in to the process of planning and programming each night. 

The big change that Qathryn made to Art Walk made was to take alcohol out of the equation and ban sales outside of restaurants and bars, and to get galleries to stop serving wine. There are more than enough restaurants and bars in the neighborhood, she noted, and removing alcohol helped keep the focus on the art and the post-event socializing. The food trucks were also curtailed because they were crowding out regular businesses and creating traffic nightmares. The city also cooperated by denying “change of use” permits for the night, which meant that the trucks and vendors could no longer plant themselves in a parking lot. There are some trucks, but it is down to a handful in one small spot.

Those steps changed the tone of Art Walk completely, and it slowly discouraged partiers from overwhelming the event; the wrong crowd stopped coming. It should be noted that the Historic Core is effectively in Skid Row, and removing alcohol also reduced already present neighborhood issues from getting out of hand.

Qathryn has really been focused on education and outreach to the galleries and public. She set up a stable event “Lounge” that is open 6-10 p.m., where volunteers hand out maps, information and recommendations (if, for example, you only had time to look at five places, they would make suggestions based on your interests). Getting the galleries to cooperate with one another was also a major step, at first, perhaps, reluctantly, but success has a way of increasing cooperation. Slowly from there, set themes for each evening began to develop. They studied the themes that worked, and focused on those. The lounge itself served as a focal point,

There are sponsors for Art Walk, which allows for publicity, printing and outreach. It also has formal committees and is working on grant applications to build more programming. The galleries pay nothing into the programming or operations, but they do take an active role in planning.

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One constant theme in speaking with Qathryn was the importance of inclusion. She noted that other walks throughout the city tend to market to the same people who always turn out. That inhibits the ability to bring in people of different communities, ages, and social and economic strata. Not being inclusive means zero growth and no evolution.

An example that surprised me were the youth education programs during the day, in conjunction with local schools. Qathryn was particularly excited about that, in terms of how both parents and children get involved and take an active interest in the neighborhood and the arts. She mentions a parent who told her about driving in from one of the far-flung suburbs to take advantage of the programs, paraphrasing, “I can’t afford to take my four children to paid venues, but they can all come with me to this.” And from those encounters some kids have declared that not only do they want to become artists, but that they are already! Qathryn loved that. And that gets parents, and schools, more involved. That helps foster an active interest not only in the arts, but in the neighborhood, as well.

Collectors also have a formal tour program designed just for them that requires a sign-up. And there is an occasional mural tour. One bit of poor planning on the part of the muralists is that their works are often situated against the flow of one-way traffic, so a walking tour is the only way to see them.

While there is not much commerce conducted during the event, it tends to happen in the following week or two. The Art Walk night is not focused on sales, but education. That process seems to work well, as taking sales out of the mix as a focus allows collectors the space to think and appreciate first.

Real-estate developers should take note, as they have reported back to Qathryn that the Monday and Tuesday following Art Walk night generates the most inquiries about rental or purchase of property in the area. It seems engagement and education have strong benefits beyond the arts themselves.